A YOUNG woman taken hostage yesterday by high-risk prisoners, narrowly escaped being raped at the same Bloemfontein maximum security prison four years ago. The woman, believed to be the mother of two children, is an administrative assistant at the Mangaung Correctional Centre.
She was attacked while guarding at least 70 prisoners in an exercise yard in the prison yesterday. Authorities have refused to name her.
The Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union said the woman was seized after an attack on three warders by prisoners earlier this week. In December two prisoners held a doctor and a nurse hostage for two days.
More than 300 guards employed by G4S Africa – a private security company more usually contracted to provide armed escorts for cash- in-transit vehicles – were fired two weeks ago after embarking on an illegal strike sparked by concerns about their safety at the prison.
The management of the prison, including the guarding of prisoners, has been outsourced to G4S by the Department of Correctional Services for a "nominal fee".
According to Popcru, the prison has one guard for every 64 inmates.
The woman, according to Correctional Services sources, was overpowered and dragged into a cell by at least four prisoners, who had armed themselves with improvised weapons. It is believed at least three guards were injured when they tried to rescue their colleague.
The police's special task force was deployed, along with hostage negotiators, to the prison.
Popcru's Free State secretary, Lawrence Msinto, said the same woman had survived an attempted rape four years ago. "The attack occurred while she was working in the prison's administrative section. It was not the first incident of its kind.
"It shows that the guards have legitimate complaints [and] that the situation is far from 'alright', as both the company [G4S] and the department suggest," he said.
"It is unacceptable that you have a situation in which administrative staff are guarding highly dangerous prisoners. These prisoners have nothing to lose. They will risk everything to get what they want.
"We find it disturbing that, instead of dealing with safety issues, they fire people guarding these prisoners and appoint administrative workers as guards, forcing them into the lion's den," Msinto said.
"This week three other guards, including a trainee, were attacked.
"An investigation is needed to establish why the department has allowed the situation to develop. Why do we have only one guard for 60 highly dangerous prisoners?"
Correctional Services' Joe Maako, who is responsible for the administration of prisons at which functions have been outsourced, said late yesterday the police task force and hostage negotiators were trying to bring the situation under control.
"The hostage takers have demanded cellphones and want to speak to the national commissioner of prisons. We are not sure what they want to speak about.
"As far as we know, the hostage takers are not armed," he said.
Maako dismissed Msinto's claims that the hostage was not a certified guard. "She is certified. She is just usually used for duties other than guarding," he said.
He would not say whether she had been injured in the attack. "All I can say is she is very young and those holding her are high-risk prisoners."
G4S spokesman Kirsten van der Nest declined to speak about the attempted rape of the woman four years ago. "The safe release of the employee is of primary importance.
"Contingency measures have been activated."